Quebec is like Paris. But without the Parisians

Canada's Quebec City is a smaller version of the French captial. Paddy Burt visits a city of ghosts where the winters can turn a pleasure- boat Captain into a civil servant
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In Quebec City's most famous hotel, the Chateau de Frontenac, I meet a young woman dressed in Victorian garb. Her name is Charlotte Lemoine. "I'm so glad to see you," she begins coquettishly, "zis afternoon I am going to take you on a beeg, beeg journey." She pauses dramatically. "I was last here in 1897!"

Her mainly American audience is wide-eyed. "That was a verree long time ago, wasn't it," she giggles, "but today I 'ave returned to tell you the secrets of my beautiful chateau..."

I had popped into the Frontenac for a spot of tea and, on a whim, decided to take one of their guided hotel tours (English or French, pounds 2). I had not expected an encounter with a ghost.

The gigantic Victorian Gothic Chateau de Frontenac has gireen copper turrets and roofs and soars from the cliff top that overlooks the St Lawrence River, reminding me of one of those illustrations to a Grimm Brothers fairytale about beautiful maidens in distress and ogres muttering Fe Fi Fo Fum.

Inside, the wood-panelled foyer is full of green leather sofas and armchairs and hustle and bustle. The luggage trolleys being wheeled by stripy-waistcoated porters are made of brass. This is the hub of Quebec City, for those who can afford to stay here.

But don't think we've done with ghosts. Or dates. My head's reeling. According to our Victorian muse, the Comte de Frontenac was "the most illoostrious governor Quebec City has ev-air 'ad." That was back in 1690, though his ghost reputedly still haunts the corridors of the hotel named in his honour. "Sometimes, when I hear a little music following me," she murmurs, "I jus' know it's heem..."

Ghosts also look over the visitors' shoulders on every ancient, cobblestoned corner. They're an integral part of Quebec's bloody past and endless wars between the English and the French, each side determined to win the city for themselves.

The wars culminated in the legendary battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 during which, after a daring clifftop attack, General Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm. Poor heroic Wolfe: In the ensuing 20-minute baffle, both he and Montcalm were killed.

Dead heroes are remembered here for the very good reason that they are the city's bread and butter. Where would Quebec be without them? In Battlefield Park, the sun may shine brightly on the sugar maples, but you can bet your bottom (Canadian) dollar that the chill of death also lingers. Nearby, on Avenue Wolfe Montcalm, a tall, thin monument commemorates the exact spot where Wolfe fell.

Fortifications are everywhere. These include four Martello towers and a star-shaped Citadel that guards the entrance to the old walled city and today is the base of the Royal 22nd Regiment who change guard here every day wearing red coats and busbys. I kid you not. Well, the Brits won the war, didn't they?

Maybe. But as the Quebecois will tell you, it was the French who were here first. Their fur trappers, missionaries and explorers arrived in the 17th century, including one Samuel de Champlain who founded Quebec City in 1608. Today you'd never believe the English had ever been in charge, for here is a city with the air and architecture of a French provincial town. And what an extraordinary language they speak. They call it French, but it's certainly not the sort that I can understand.

165,000 people live here and the joke goes that most of them are civil servants. Their favourite dish is poutine - fries with gravy and cheese - while other equally robust dishes include tarte au sucre (maple syrup pie). Not for the faint-hearted but, as they say: "We 'ave very cold winters here..." Yes, it's impossible not to notice how keen they are on telling you how high the snow gets (this varies depending on who you're talking to and can range from 3ft to 13ft).

But forget snow. This is the short Canadian summer, which brings me round to the real reason for being here now - namely to attend the International Summer Festival. This evening, in the old quartier, hundreds of music fans are gathered. Posters advertise 400 shows and concerts of classical music, francophone song, rock, jazz, blues, acrobats, magicians, comedians, clowns and dancers. The city is a giant stage.

One of the jolliest streets is Rue Grand Allee, an enchantingly wide, straight thoroughfare, leading down to the Citadel, lined with castellated buildings and crowded cafes bedecked with red and white umbrellas and blinds. From across the street come the sounds of a violin, recorder and pan pipes trio. An old man in yellow satin top and shorts, with matching cap, ambles along making chirping sounds. I think he thinks he's a canary. Everyone is flaunting their Ete T-shirts. It's like Paris without the Parisians.

At Pigeonniere Square, Juan Carlos Caceres is in concert; emerging after the show, I can smell the sweat of the horses pulling caleches around the city and hear the echoes of their harumphs as they turn corners or scale hills.

The next day I stroll along Terrasse Dufferine, behind the Chateau Frontenac and almost as famous as the hotel itself. This is a boardwalk with cannons to the left of you and cannons to the right and a fabulous view of the St Lawrence. The world and his wife, plus kids, are surveying the wondrous scene and listening to a bowler-hatted gentleman scraping on a saw. A funicular leads down the steep cliff to the Place Royale below, the oldest part of town, where the pretty houses have all been restored and antique and souvenir shops and boutique hotels flourish.

Beyond is the grey river and a cruise liner moored at the dock, its flags flying. Here, you can take a ferry trip to Levis, a proper working port with ships going down through the Great Lakes to Chicago and Pittsburgh, but I choose a trip on St Andre, a great little ex-cargo vessel. Now retired, she has become a bright blue summer pleasure boat, the pride and joy of boatman Guillaume, his wife and daughters. "I bought 'er because I liked 'er shape," explains Guillaume. "My father 'ad an old boat like this one..."

It's windless and warm standing on deck watching Quebec City recede. Out come the cameras, as we pass Montmorency Falls, reckoned to be one- and-a-half times as high as Niagara. And what does Guillaume do during the winter, I ask?

"I 'ave anozzer work," he mutters. "I am - civil servant."

Quebec City is one of the friendliest cities I have ever visited. Partly it's the Festival atmosphere, though not entirely - the Quebecois are genuinely warm people. A thought occurs: are they all easy-going in winter, when the snow's 13ft high? There's only one thing for it. Go back and find out.



The Summer Festival is from 3-13 July. Getting there: Air Canada (0990 247226) flies non-stop daily from Heathrow to Montreal, fares from pounds 462 return, plus taxes. Cars can be hired at the airport - Quebec City is approximately 3 hours' drive away.

Where to stay: Chateau de Frontenac, 1 rue des Carrieres (001 418 692 5861 or freephone 1 800 441 1414). Manoir Victoria Hotel, 44 Cote du Palais (001 418 692 1030) in the centre of town. Ouebec Tourist Board Hotline (0990 561705).


Accommodation: The author flew with Air Transat. Gatwick-Toronto return pounds 299. Via Globespan Group 0990 561522 and stayed at Metropolitan Hotel, 108 Chestnut Street, Toronto. Can$155 (pounds 67) per night (single), Can$175 per night (double).

Bond Place Hotel, 65 Dundas Street East, Toronto. Can$95 per night (single).

Car Hire: Hertz, Pearson Airport. One week from Can$105 if booked on the spot (plus reclaimable sales tax).